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Little knows the world what a power among men is the man who simply and really believes in him who is Lord of the world to save men from their sins! He may be neither wise nor prudent; he may be narrow and dim-sighted even in the things he loves best; they may promise him much, and yield him but a poor fragment of the joy that might be and ought to be his; he may present them to others clothed in no attractive hues, or in any word of power; and yet, if he has but that love to his neighbour which is rooted in, and springs from love to his God, he is always a redeeming, reconciling influence among his fellows. The Robertsons were genial of heart, loving and tender toward man or woman in need of them; their door was always on the latch for such to enter. If the parson insisted on the wrath of God against sin, he did not fail to give assurance of His tenderness toward such as had fallen. Together the godly pair at length persuaded Isobel of the eager forgiveness of the Son of Man. They assured her that he could not drive from him the very worst of sinners, but loved— nothing less than tenderly loved any one who, having sinned, now turned her face to the Father. She would doubtless, they said, have to see her trespass in the eyes of unforgiving women, but the Lord would lift her high, and welcome her to the home of the glad-hearted.
But poor Isy, who regarded her fault as both against God and the man who had misled her, and was sick at the thought of being such as she judged herself, insisted that nothing God himself could do, could ever restore her, for nothing could ever make it that she had not fallen: such a contradiction, such an impossibility alone could make her clean! God might be ready to forgive her, but He could not love her! Jesus might have made satisfaction for her sin, but how could that make any difference in or to her? She was troubled that Jesus should have so suffered, but that could not give her back her purity, or the peace of mind she once possessed! That was gone for ever! The life before her took the appearance of an unchanging gloom, a desert region whence the gladness had withered, and whence came no purifying wind to blow from her the odours of the grave by which she seemed haunted! Never to all eternity could she be innocent again! Life had no interest for her! She was, and must remain just what she was; for, alas, she could not cease to be!
Such thoughts had at one period ravaged her life, but they had for some time been growing duller and deader: now once more revived by goodness and sympathy, they had resumed their gnawing and scorching, and she had grown yet more hateful to herself. Even the two who befriended and comforted her, could never, she thought, cease to regard her as what they knew she was! But, strange to say, with this revival of her suffering, came also a requickening of her long dormant imagination, favoured and cherished, doubtless, by the peace and love that surrounded her. First her dreams, then her broodings began to be haunted with sweet embodiments. As if the agonized question of the guilty Claudius were answered to her, to assure her that there was "rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash her white as snow," she sometimes would wake from a dream where she stood in blessed nakedness with a deluge of cool, comforting rain pouring upon her from the sweetness of those heavens—and fall asleep again to dream of a soft strong west wind chasing from her the offensive emanations of the tomb, that seemed to have long persecuted her nostrils as did the blood of Duncan those of the wretched Lady Macbeth. And every night to her sinful bosom came back the soft innocent hands of the child she had lost—when ever and again her dream would change, and she would be Hagar, casting her child away, and fleeing from the sight of his death. More than once she dreamed that an angel came to her, and went out to look for her boy—only to return and lay him in her arms grievously mangled by some horrid beast.
When the first few days of her sojourn with the good Samaritans were over, and she had gathered strength enough to feel that she ought no longer to be burdensome to them, but look for work, they positively refused to let her leave them before her spirit also had regained some vital tone, and she was able to "live a little"; and to that end they endeavoured to revive in her the hope of finding her lost child: setting inquiry on foot in every direction, they promised to let her know the moment when her presence should begin to cause them inconvenience.
"Let you go, child?" her hostess had exclaimed: "God forbid! Go you shall not until you go for your own sake: you cannot go for ours!"
"But I'm such a burden to you—and so useless!"
"Was the Lord a burden to Mary and Lazarus, think ye, my poor bairn?" rejoined Mrs. Robertson.
"Don't, ma'am, please!" sobbed Isy.
"Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these, ye did it to me!" insisted her hostess.
"That doesna apply, ma'am," objected Isy. "I'm nane o' his!"
"Who is then? Who was it he came to save? Are you not one of his lost sheep? Are you not weary and heavy-laden? Will you never let him feel at home with you? Are you to say who he is to love and who he isn't? Are you to tell him who are fit to be counted his, and who are not good enough?"
Isy was silent for a long time. The foundations of her coming peace were being dug deeper, and laid wider.
She still found it impossible, from the disordered state of her mind at the time, to give any notion of whereabout she had been when she laid her child down, and leaving him, could not again find him. And Maggie, who loved him passionatately and believed him wilfully abandoned, cherished no desire to discover one who could claim him, but was unworthy to have him. For a long time, therefore, neither she nor her father ever talked, or encouraged talk about him; whence certain questing busybodies began to snuff and give tongue. It was all very well, they said, for the cobbler and his Maggie to pose as rescuers and benefactors: but whose was the child? His growth nevertheless went on all the same, and however such hints might seem to concern him, happily they never reached him. Maggie flattered herself, indeed, that never in this world would they reach him, but would die away in the void, or like a fallen wave against the heedless shore! And yet, all the time, in the not so distant city, a loving woman was weeping and pining for lack of him, whose conduct, in the eyes of the Robertsons, was not merely blameless, but sweetly and manifestly true, constantly yielding fuel to the love that encompassed her. But, although mentally and spiritually she was growing rapidly, she seemed to have lost all hope. For, deeper in her soul, and nearer the root of her misery than even the loss of her child, lay the character and conduct of the man to whom her love seemed inextinguishable. His apostasy from her, his neglect of her, and her constantly gnawing sense of pollution, burned at the bands of her life; and her friends soon began to fear that she was on the verge of a slow downward slide, upon which there is seldom any turning.
The parson and his wife had long been on friendliest terms with the farmer of Stonecross and his wife; and, brooding on the condition of their guest, it was natural that the thought of Mrs. Blatherwick should occur to them as one who might be able to render them the help they needed for her. Difficulties were in the way, it was true, chiefly that of conveying a true conception of the nature and character of the woman in whom they desired her interest; but if Mrs. Blatherwick were once to see her, there would be no fear of the result: received at the farm, she was certain in no way to compromise them! They were confident she would never belie the character they were prepared to give her. Neither was there any one at the farm for whom it was possible to dread intercourse with her, seeing that, since the death of their only daughter, they had not had a servant in the house. It was concluded therefore between them that Mr. Robertson should visit their friends at Stonecross, and tell them all they knew about Isy.
It was a lovely morning in the decline of summer, the corn nearly full grown, but still green, without sign of the coming gold of perfection, when the minister mounted the top of the coach, to wait, silent and a little anxious, for the appearance of the coachman from the office, thrusting the waybill into the pocket of his huge greatcoat, to gather his reins, and climb heavily to his perch. A journey of four hours, through a not very interesting country, but along a splendid road, would carry him to the village where the soutar lived, and where James Blatherwick was parson! There a walk of about three miles awaited him—a long and somewhat weary way to the town-minister—accustomed indeed to tramping the hard pavements, but not to long walks unbroken by calls. Climbing at last the hill on which the farmhouse stood, be caught sight of Peter Blatherwick in a neighbouring field of barley stubble, with the reins of a pair of powerful Clydesdales in his hands, wrestling with the earth as it strove to wrench from his hold the stilts of the plough whose share and coulter he was guiding through it. Peter's delight was in the open air, and hard work in it. He was as far from the vulgar idea that a man rose in the scale of honour when he ceased to labour with his hands, as he was from the fancy that a man rose in the kingdom of heaven when he was made a bishop.
As to his higher nature, the farmer believed in God—that is, he tried to do what God required of him, and thus was on the straight road to know him. He talked little about religion, and was no partisan. When he heard people advocating or opposing the claims of this or that party in the church, he would turn away with a smile such as men yield to the talk of children. He had no time, he would say, to spend on such disputes: he had enough to do in trying to practise what was beyond dispute.
He was a reading man, who not merely drank at every open source he came across, but thought over what he read, and was, therefore, a man of true intelligence, who was regarded by his neighbours with more than ordinary respect. He had been the first in the district to lay hold of the discoveries in chemistry applicable to agriculture, and had made use of them, with notable results, upon his own farm; setting thus an example which his neighbours were so ready to follow, that the region, nowise remarkable for its soil, soon became remarkable for its crops. The note- worthiest thing in him, however, was his humanity, shown first and chiefly in the width and strength of his family affections. He had a strong drawing, not only to his immediate relations, but to all of his blood; who were not few, for he came of an ancient family, long settled in the neighbourhood. In his worldly affairs he was well-to-do, having added not a little to the little his father had left him; but he was no lover of money, being open-handed even to his wife, upon whom first your money-grub is sure to exercise his parsimony. There was, however, at Stonecross, little call to spend and less temptation from without, the farm itself being equal to the supply of almost every ordinary necessity.
In disposition Peter Blatherwick was a good-humoured, even merry man, with a playful answer almost always ready for a greeting neighbour.
The minister did not however go on to join the farmer, but went to the house, which stood close at hand, with its low gable toward him. Late summer still lorded it in the land; only a few fleecy clouds shared the blue of the sky with the ripening sun, and on the hot ridges the air pulsed and trembled, like vaporized layers of mother-of-pearl.
At the end of the idle lever, no sleepy old horse was now making his monotonous rounds; his late radiance, born of age and sunshine, was quenched in the dark of the noonday stall. But the peacock still strutted among the ricks, as conscious of his glorious plumage, as regardless of the ugliness of his feet as ever; now and then checking the rhythmic movement of his neck, undulating green and blue, to scratch the ground with those feet, and dart his beak, with apparently spiteful greed, at some tiny crystal of quartz or pickle of grain they exposed; or, from the towering steeple of his up lifted throat, to utter his self-satisfaction in a hideous cry.
In the gable before him, Mr. Robertson passed a low window, through which he had a glimpse of the pretty, old-fashioned parlour within, as he went round to the front, to knock at the nearer of two green-painted doors.
Mrs. Blatherwick herself came to open it, and finding who it was that knocked—of all men the most welcome to her in her present mood—received him with the hearty simplicity of an evident welcome.
For was he not a minister? and was not he who caused all her trouble, a minister also? She was not, indeed, going to lay open her heart and let him see into its sorrow; for to confess her son a cause of the least anxiety to her, would be faithless and treacherous; but the unexpected appearance of Mr. Robertson brought her, nevertheless, as it were the dawn of a winter morning after a long night of pain.
She led him into the low-ceiled parlour, the green gloom of the big hydrangea that filled the front window, and the ancient scent of the withered rose-leaves in the gorgeous china basin on the gold-bordered table-cover. There the minister, after a few kind commonplaces, sat for a moment, silently pondering how to enter upon his communication. But he did not ponder long, however; for his usual way was to rush headlong at whatever seemed to harbour a lion, and come at once to the death-grapple.
Marion Blatherwick was a good-looking woman, with a quiet strong expression, and sweet gray eyes. The daughter of a country surgeon, she had been left an orphan without means; but was so generally respected, that all said Mr. Blatherwick had never done better than when he married her. Their living son seemed almost to have died in his infancy; their dead daughter, gone beyond range of eye and ear, seemed never to have left them: there was no separation, only distance between them.
"I have taken the liberty, Mrs. Blatherwick, of coming to ask your help in a great perplexity," began Mr. Robertson, with an embarrassment she had never seen in him before, and which bewildered her not a little.
"Weel, sir, it's an honour done me—a great honour, for which I hae to thank ye, I'm sure!" she answered.
"Bide ye, mem, till ye hear what it is," rejoined the minister. "We, that is, my wife and mysel, hae a puir lass at hame i' the hoose. We hae ta'en a great interest in her for some weeks past; but noo we're 'maist at oor wits' en' what to do wi' her neist. She's sair oot o' hert, and oot o' health, and out o' houp; and in fac' she stan's in sair, ay, desperate need o' a cheenge."
"Weel, that ouchtna to mak muckle o' a diffeeclety atween auld friens like oorsels, Maister Robertson!—Ye wad hae us tak her in for a whilie, till she luiks up a bit, puir thing?—Hoo auld may she be?"
"She can hardly be mair nor twenty, or aboot that—sic like as your ain bonnie lassie would hae been by this time, gien she had ripent here i'stead o' gaein awa to the gran' finishin schuil o' the just made perfec. Weel min' I her bonny face! And, 'deed, this ane's no' that unlike yer ain Isy! She something favours her."
"Eh, sir, fess her to me! My hert's waitin for her! Her mither maunna lowse her! She couldna stan' that!"
"She has nae mither, puir thing!—But ye maun dee naething in a hurry; I maun tell ye aboot her first!"
"I'm content 'at she's a frien o' yours, sir. I ken weel ye wad never hae me tak intil my hoose are that was na fit—and a' the lads aboot the place frae ae mornin til anither!"
"Indeed she is a frien o' mine, mem; and I hae never a dreid o' onything happenin ye wadna like. She's in ower sair trouble to cause ony anxiety. The fac' is, she's had a terrible misfortun!"
The good woman started, drew herself up a little, and said hurriedly,
"There's no a wean, is there?"
"'Deed is there, mem!—but pairt o' the meesery is, the bairn's disappeart; and she's brackin her heart aboot 'im. She's maist oot o' her min', mem! No that she's onything but perfecly reasonable, and gies never a grain o' trouble! I canna doobt she'd be a great help til ye, and that ilka minute ye saw fit to lat her bide. But she's jist huntit wi' the idea that she pat the bairnie doon, and left him, and kens na whaur.—Verily, mem, she's are o' the lambs o' the Lord's ain flock!"
"That's no the w'y the lambs o' his flock are i' the w'y o' behavin themsels!—I fear me, sir, ye're lattin yer heart rin awa wi' yer jeedgment!"
"I hae aye coontit Mary Magdalen are o' the Lord's ain yowies, that he left the lave i' the wilderness to luik for: this is sic anither! Gien ye help Him to come upon her, ye'll cairry her hame 'atween ye rej'icin! And ye min' hoo he stude 'atween are far waur nor her, and the ill men that would fain hae shamet her, and sent them oot like sae mony tykes—thae gran' Pharisees—wi their tails tuckit in 'atween their legs!—Sair affrontit they war, doobtless!—But I maun be gaein, mem, for we're no vera like to agree! My Maister's no o' ae min' wi' you, mem, aboot sic affairs—and sae I maun gang, and lea' ye to yer ain opingon! But I would jist remin' ye, mem, that she's at this present i' my hoose, wi my wife; and my wee bit lassie hings aboot her as gien she was an angel come doon to see the bonny place this warl luks frae up there.—Eh, puir lammie, the stanes oucht to be feower upo thae hill-sides!"
"What for that, Maister Robertson?"
"'Cause there's so mony o' them whaur human herts oucht to be.—Come awa, doggie!" he added, rising.
"Dear me, sir! haena ye hae a grain o' patience to waur (spend) upon a puir menseless body?" cried Marion, wringing her hands in dismay. "To think I sud be nice whaur my Lord was sae free!"
"Ay," returned the minister, "and he was jist as clean as ever, wi' mony ane siclike as her inside the heart o' him!—Gang awa, and dinna dee the like again, was a' he said to that ane!—and ye may weel be sure she never did! And noo she and Mary are followin, wi' yer ain Isy, i' the vera futsteps o' the great shepherd, throuw the gowany leys o' the New Jerus'lem—whaur it may be they ca' her Isy yet, as they ca' this ane I hae to gang hame til."
"Ca' they her that, sir?—Eh, gar her come, gar her come! I wud fain cry upo Isy ance mair!—Sit ye doon, sir, shame upo' me!—and tak a bite efter yer lang walk!—Will ye no bide the nicht wi' 's, and gang back by the mornin's co'ch?"
"I wull that, mem—and thank ye kindly! I'm a bit fatiguit wi' the hill ro'd, and the walk a wee langer than I'm used til.—Ye maun hae peety upo my kittle temper, mem, and no drive me to ower muckle shame o' myself!" he concluded, wiping his forehead.
"And to think," cried his hostess, "that my hard hert sud hae drawn sic a word frae ane o' the Lord's servans that serve him day and nicht! I beg yer pardon, and that richt heumbly, sir! I daurna say I'll never do the like again, but I'm no sae likly to transgress a second time as the first.— Lord, keep the doors o' my lips, that ill-faured words comena thouchtless oot, and shame me and them that hear me!—I maun gang and see aboot yer denner, sir! I s' no be lang."
"Yer gracious words, mem, are mair nor meat and drink to me. I could, like Elijah, go i' the stren'th o' them—maybe something less than forty days, but it wad be by the same sort o' stren'th as that angels'-food gied the prophet!"
Marion hurried none the less for such a word; and soon the minister had eaten his supper, and was seated in the cool of a sweet summer-evening, in the garden before the house, among roses and lilies and poppy-heads and long pink-striped grasses, enjoying a pipe with the farmer, who had anticipated the hour for unyoking, and hurried home to have a talk with Mr. Robertson. The minister opened wide his heart, and told them all he knew and thought of Isy. And so prejudiced were they in her favour by what he said of her, and the arguments he brought to show that the judgment of the world was in her case tyrannous and false, that what anxiety might yet remain as to the new relation into which they were about to enter, was soon absorbed in hopeful expectation of her appearance.
"But," he concluded, "you will have to be wise as serpents, lest aiblins (possibly) ye kep (intercept) a lost sheep on her w'y back to the shepherd, and gar her lie theroot (out of doors), exposed to the prowlin wouf. Afore God, I wud rether share wi' her in that day, nor wi' them that keppit her!"
But when he reached home, the minister was startled, indeed dismayed by the pallor that overwhelmed Isy's countenance when she heard, following his assurance of the welcome that awaited her, the name and abode of her new friends.
"They'll be wantin to ken a'thing!" she sobbed.
"Tell you them," returned the minister, "everything they have a right to know; they are good people, and will not ask more. Beyond that, they will respect your silence."
"There's but ae thing, as ye ken, sir, that I canna, and winna tell. To haud my tongue aboot that is the ae particle o' honesty left possible to me! It's enough I should have been the cause of the poor man's sin; and I'm not going to bring upon him any of the consequences of it as well. God keep the doors of my lips!"
"We will not go into the question whether you or he was the more to blame," returned the parson; "but I heartily approve of your resolve, and admire your firmness in holding to it. The time may come when you ought to tell; but until then, I shall not even allow myself to wonder who the faithless man may be."
Isy burst into tears.
"Don't call him that, sir! Don't drive me to doubt him. Don't let the thought cross my mind that he could have helped doing nothing! Besides, I deserve nothing! And for my bonny bairn, he maun by this time be back hame to Him that sent him!"
Thus assured that her secret would be respected by those to whom she was going, she ceased to show further reluctance to accept the shelter offered her. And, in truth, underneath the dread of encountering James Blatherwick's parents, lay hidden in her mind the fearful joy of a chance of some day catching, herself unseen, a glimpse of the man whom she still loved with the forgiving tenderness of a true, therefore strong heart. With a trembling, fluttering bosom she took her place on the coach beside Mr. Robertson, to go with him to the refuge he had found for her.
Once more in the open world, with which she had had so much intercourse that was other than joyous, that same world began at once to work the will of its Maker upon her poor lacerated soul; and afar in its hidden deeps the process of healing was already begun. Agony would many a time return unbidden, would yet often rise like a crested wave, with menace of overwhelming despair, but the Real, the True, long hidden from her by the lying judgments of men and women, was now at length beginning to reveal itself to her tear-blinded vision; Hope was lifting a feeble head above the tangled weeds of the subsiding deluge; and ere long the girl would see and understand how little cares the Father, whose judgment is the truth of things, what at any time his child may have been or, done, the moment that child gives herself up to be made what He would have her! Looking down into the hearts of men, He sees differences there of which the self-important world takes no heed; many that count themselves of the first, He sees the last—and what He sees, alone is: a gutter-child, a thief, a girl who never in this world had even a notion of purity, may lie smiling in the arms of the Eternal, while the head of a lordly house that still flourishes like a green bay-tree, may be wandering about with the dogs beyond the walls of the city.
Out in the open world, I say, the power of the present God began at once to work upon Isobel, for there, although dimly, she yet looked into His open face, sketched vaguely in the mighty something we call Nature—chiefly on the great vault we call Heaven, the Upheaved. Shapely but undefined; perfect in form, yet limitless in depth; blue and persistent, yet ever evading capture by human heart in human eye; this sphere of fashioned boundlessness, of definite shapelessness, called up in her heart the formless children of upheavedness—grandeur, namely, and awe; hope, namely, and desire: all rushed together toward the dawn of the unspeakable One, who, dwelling in that heaven, is above all heavens; mighty and unchangeable, yet childlike; inexorable, yet tender as never was mother; devoted as never yet was child save one. Isy, indeed, understood little of all this; yet she wept, she knew not why; and it was not for sorrow.
But when, the coach-journey over, she turned her back upon the house where her child lay, and entered the desolate hill-country, a strange feeling began to invade her consciousness. It seemed at first but an old mood, worn shadowy; then it seemed the return of an old dream; then a painful, confused, half-forgotten memory; but at length it cleared and settled into a conviction that she had been in the same region before, and had had, although a passing, yet a painful acquaintance with it; and at the last she concluded that she must be near the very spot where she had left and lost her baby. All that had, up to that moment, befallen her, seemed fused in a troubled conglomerate of hunger and cold and weariness, of help and hurt, of deliverance and returning pain: they all mingled inextricably with the scene around her, and there condensed into the memory of that one event—of which this must assuredly be the actual place! She looked upon widespread wastes of heather and peat, great stones here and there, half-buried in it, half-sticking out of it: surely she was waiting there for something to come to pass! surely behind this veil of the Seen, a child must be standing with outstretched arms, hungering after his mother! In herself that very moment must Memory be trembling into vision! At Length her heart's desire must be drawing near to her expectant soul!
But suddenly, alas! her certainty of recollection, her assurance of prophetic anticipation, faded from her, and of the recollection itself remained nothing but a ruin! And all the time it took to dawn into brilliance and fade out into darkness, had measured but a few weary steps by the side of her companion, lost in the meditation of a glad sermon for the next Sunday about the lost sheep carried home with jubilance, and forgetting how unfit was the poor sheep beside him for such a fatiguing tramp up hill and down, along what was nothing better than the stony bed of a winter-torrent.
All at once Isy darted aside from the rough track, scrambled up the steep bank, and ran like one demented into a great clump of heather, which she began at once to search through and through. The minister stopped bewildered, and stood to watch her, almost fearing for a moment that she had again lost her wits. She got on the top of a stone in the middle of the clump, turned several times round, gazed in every direction over the moor, then descended with a hopeless look, and came slowly back to him, saying—
"I beg your pardon, sir; I thought I had a glimpse of my infant through the heather! This must be the very spot where I left him!"
The next moment she faltered feebly—
"Hae we far to gang yet, sir?" and before he could make her any answer, staggered to the bank on the roadside, fell upon it, and lay still.
The minister immediately felt that he had been cruel in expecting her to walk so far; he made haste to lay her comfortably on the short grass, and waited anxiously, doing what he could to bring her to herself. He could see no water near, but at least she had plenty of air!
In a little while she began to recover, sat up, and would have risen to resume her journey. But the minister, filled with compunction, took her up in his arms. They were near the crown of the ascent, and he could carry her as far as that! She expostulated, but was unable to resist. Light as she was, however, he found it no easy task to bear her up the last of the steep rise, and was glad to set her down at the top—where a fresh breeze was waiting to revive them both. She thanked him like a child whose father had come to her help; and they seated themselves together on the highest point of the moor, with a large, desolate land on every side of them.
"Oh, sir, but ye are good to me!" she murmured. "That brae just minded me o' the Hill of Difficulty in the Pilgrim's Progress!"
"Oh, you know that story?" said the minister.
"My old grannie used to make me read it to her when she lay dying. I thought it long and tiresome then, but since you took me to your house, sir, I have remembered many things in it; I knew then that I was come to the house of the Interpreter. You've made me understand, sir!"
"I am glad of that, Isy! You see I know some things that make me very glad, and so I want them to make you glad too. And the thing that makes me gladdest of all, is just that God is what he is. To know that such a One is God over us and in us, makes of very being a most precious delight. His children, those of them that know him, are all glad just because he is, and they are his children. Do you think a strong man like me would read sermons and say prayers and talk to people, doing nothing but such shamefully easy work, if he did not believe what he said?"
"I'm sure, sir, you have had hard enough work with me! I am a bad one to teach! I thought I knew all that you have had such trouble to make me see! I was in a bog of ignorance and misery, but now I am getting my head up out of it, and seeing about me!—Please let me ask you one thing, sir: how is it that, when the thought of God comes to me, I draw back, afraid of him? If he be the kind of person you say he is, why can't I go close up to him?"
"I confess the same foolishness, my child, at times," answered the minister. "It can only be because we do not yet see God as he is—and that must be because we do not yet really understand Jesus—do not see the glory of God in his face. God is just like Jesus—exactly like him!"
And the parson fell a wondering how it could be that so many, gentle and guileless as this woman-child, recoiled from the thought of the perfect One. Why were they not always and irresistibly drawn toward the very idea of God? Why, at least, should they not run to see and make sure whether God was indeed such a one or not? whether he was really Love itself—or only loved them after a fashion? It set him thinking afresh about many things; and he soon began to discover that he had in fact been teaching a good many things without knowing them; for how could he know things that were not true, and therefore could not be known? He had indeed been saying that God was Love, but he had yet been teaching many things about him that were not lovable!
They sat thinking and talking, with silences between; and while they thought and talked, the day-star was all the time rising unnoted in their hearts. At length, finding herself much stronger, Isy rose, and they resumed their journey.
The door stood open to receive them; but ere they reached it, a bright- looking little woman, with delicate lines of ingrained red in a sorrowful face, appeared in it, looking out with questioning eyes—like a mother-bird just loosening her feet from the threshold of her nest to fly and meet them. Through the film that blinded those expectant eyes, Marion saw what manner of woman she was that drew nigh, and her motherhood went out to her. For, in the love-witchery of Isy's yearning look, humbly seeking acceptance, and in her hesitating approach half-checked by gentle apology, Marion imagined she saw her own Isy coming back from the gates of Death, and sprang to meet her. The mediating love of the minister, obliterating itself, had made him linger a step or two behind, waiting what would follow: when he saw the two folded each in the other's arms, and the fountain of love thus break forth at once from their encountering hearts, his soul leaped for joy of the new-created love—new, but not the less surely eternal; for God is Love, and Love is that which is, and was, and shall be for evermore—boundless, unconditioned, self-existent, creative! "Truly," he said in himself, "God is Love, and God is all and in all! He is no abstraction; he is the one eternal Individual God! In him Love evermore breaks forth anew into fresh personality—in every new consciousness, in every new child of the one creating Father. In every burning heart, in everything that hopes and fears and is, Love is the creative presence, the centre, the source of life, yea Life itself; yea, God himself!"
The elder woman drew herself a little back, held the poor white-faced thing at arms'-length, and looked her through the face into the heart.
"My bonny lamb!" she cried, and pressed her again to her bosom. "Come hame, and be a guid bairn, and ill man sall never touch ye, or gar ye greit ony mair! There's my man waitin for ye, to tak ye, and haud ye safe!"
Isy looked up, and over the shoulder of her hostess saw the strong paternal face of the farmer, full of silent welcome. For the strange emotion that filled him he did not seek to account: he had nothing to do with that; his will was lord over it!
"Come ben the hoose, lassie," he said, and led the way to the parlour, where the red sunset was shining through the low gable window, filling the place with the glamour of departing glory. "Sit ye doon upo the sofa there; ye maun be unco tired! Surely ye haena come a' the lang ro'd frae Tiltowie upo yer ain twa wee feet?"
"'Deed has she," answered the minister, who had followed them into the room; "the mair shame to me 'at loot her dee 't!"
Marion lingered outside, wiping away the tears that would keep flowing. For the one question, "What can be amiss wi' Jamie?" had returned upon her, haunting and harrying her heart; and with it had come the idea, though vague and formless, that their goodwill to the wandering outcast might perhaps do something to make up for whatever ill thing Jamie might have done. At last, instead of entering the parlour after them, she turned away to the kitchen, and made haste to get ready their supper.
Isy sank back in the wide sofa, lost in relief; and the minister, when he saw her look of conscious refuge and repose, said to himself—
"She is feeling as we shall all feel when first we know nothing near us but the Love itself that was before all worlds!—when there is no doubt more, and no questioning more!"
But the heart of the farmer was full of the old uncontent, the old longing after the heart of his boy, that had never learned to cry "Father!"
But soon they sat down to their meal. While they ate, hardly any one spoke, and no one missed the speech or was aware of the silence, until the bereaved Isobel thought of her child, and burst into tears. Then the mother who sorrowed with such a different, and so much bitterer sorrow, divining her thought and whence it came, rose, and from behind her said—
"Noo ye maun jist come awa wi' me, and I s' pit ye til yer bed, and lea' ye there!—Na, na; say gude nicht to naebody!—Ye'll see the minister again i' the mornin!"
With that she took Isy away, half-carrying her close-pressed, and half-leading her; for Marion, although no bigger than Isy, was much stronger, and could easily have carried her.
That night both mothers slept well, and both dreamed of their mothers and of their children. But in the morning nothing remained of their two dreams except two hopes in the one Father.
When Isy entered the little parlour, she found she had slept so long that breakfast was over, the minister smoking his pipe in the garden, and the farmer busy in his yard. But Marion heard her, and brought her breakfast, beaming with ministration; then thinking she would eat it better if left to herself, went back to her work. In about five minutes, however, Isy joined her, and began at once to lend a helping hand.
"Hoot, hoot, my dear!" cried her hostess, "ye haena taen time eneuch to make a proaper brakfast o' 't! Gang awa back, and put mair intil ye. Gien ye dinna learn to ate, we s' never get ony guid o' ye!"
"I just can't eat for gladness," returned Isy. "Ye're that good to me, that
I dare hardly think aboot it; it'll gar me greit!—Lat me help ye, mem, and
I'll grow hungry by dennertime!"
Mrs. Blatherwick understood, and said no more. She showed her what she might set about; and Isy, happy as a child, came and went at her commands, rejoicing. Probably, had she started in life with less devotion, she might have fared better; but the end was not yet, and the end must be known before we dare judge: result explains history. It is enough for the present to say that, with the comparative repose of mind she now enjoyed, with the good food she had, and the wholesome exercise, for Mrs. Blatherwick took care she should not work too hard, with the steady kindness shown her, and the consequent growth of her faith and hope, Isy's light-heartedness first, and then her good looks began to return; so that soon the dainty little creature was both prettier and lovelier than before. At the same time her face and figure, her ways and motions, went on mingling themselves so inextricably with Marion's impressions of her vanished Isy, that at length she felt as if she never could be able to part with her. Nor was it long before she assured herself that she was equal to anything that had to be done in the house; and that the experience of a day or two would make her capable of the work of the dairy as well. Thus Isy and her mistress, for so Isy insisted on regarding and calling her, speedily settled into their new relation.
It did sometimes cross the girl's mind, and that with a sting of doubt, whether it was fair to hide from her new friends the full facts of her sorrowful history; but to quiet her conscience she had only to reflect that for the sake of the son they loved, she must keep jealous guard over her silence. Further than James's protection, she had no design, cherished no scheme. The idea of compelling, or even influencing him to do her justice, never once crossed her horizon. On the contrary, she was possessed by the notion that she had done him a great wrong, and shrank in horror from the danger of rendering it irretrievable. She had never thought the thing out as between her and him, never even said to herself that he too had been to blame. Her exaggerated notion of the share she had in the fault, had lodged and got fixed in her mind, partly from her acquaintance with the popular judgment concerning such as she, and partly from her humble readiness to take any blame to herself. Even had she been capable of comparing the relative consequences, the injury she had done his prospects as a minister, would have seemed to her revering soul a far greater wrong than any suffering or loss he had brought upon her. For what was she beside him? What was the ruin of her life to the frustration of such prospects as his? The sole alleviation of her misery was that she seemed hitherto to have escaped involving him in the results of her lack of self-restraint, which results, she was certain, remained concealed from him, as from every one in any way concerned with him in them. In truth, never was man less worthy of it, or more devotedly shielded! And never was hidden wrong to the woman turned more eagerly and persistently into loving service to the man's parents! Many and many a time did the heart of James's mother, as she watched Isy's deft and dainty motions, regret, even with bitterness, that such a capable and love-inspiring girl should have rendered herself unworthy of her son—for, notwithstanding what she regarded as the disparity of their positions, she would gladly have welcomed Isy as a daughter, had she but been spotless, and fit to be loved by him.
In the evenings, when the work of the day was done, Isy used to ramble about the moor, in the lingering rays of the last of the sunset, and the now quickly shortening twilight. In those hours unhasting, gentle, and so spiritual in their tone that they seem to come straight from the eternal spaces where is no recalling and no forgetting, where time and space are motionless, and the spirit is at rest, Isy first began to read with conscious understanding. For now first she fell into the company of books— old-fashioned ones no doubt, but perhaps even therefore the more fit for her, who was an old-fashioned, gentle, ignorant, thoughtful child. Among the rest in the farmhouse, she came upon the two volumes of a book called The Preceptor, which contained various treatises laying down "the first principles of Polite Learning:" these drew her eager attention; and with one or other of the not very handy volumes in her hand, she would steal out of sight of the farm, and lapt in the solitude of the moor, would sit and read until at last the light could reveal not a word more. Even the Geometry she found in them attracted her not a little; the Rhetoric and Poetry drew her yet more; but most of all, the Natural History, with its engravings of beasts and birds, poor as they were, delighted her; and from these antiquated repertories she gathered much, and chiefly that most valuable knowledge, some acquaintance with her own ignorance. There also, in a garret over the kitchen, she found an English translation of Klopstock's Messiah, a poem which, in the middle of the last and in the present century, caused a great excitement in Germany, and did not a little, I believe, for the development of religious feeling in that country, where the slow-subsiding ripple of its commotion is possibly not altogether unfelt even at the present day. She read the volume through as she strolled in those twilights, not without risking many a fall over bush and stone ere practice taught her to see at once both the way for her feet over the moor, and that for her eyes over the printed page. The book both pleased and suited her, the parts that interested her most being those about the repentant angel, Abaddon; who, if I remember aright, haunted the steps of the Saviour, and hovered about the cross while he was crucified. The great question with her for a long time was, whether the Saviour must not have forgiven him; but by slow degrees it became at last clear to her, that he who came but to seek and to save the lost, could not have closed the door against one that sought return to his fealty. It was not until she knew the soutar, however, that at length she understood the tireless redeeming of the Father, who had sent men blind and stupid and ill- conditioned, into a world where they had to learn almost everything.
There were some few books of a more theological sort, which happily she neither could understand nor was able to imagine she understood, and which therefore she instinctively refused, as affording nourishment neither for thought nor feeling. There was, besides, Dr. Johnson's Rasselas, which mildly interested her; and a book called Dialogues of Devils, which she read with avidity. And thus, if indeed her ignorance did not become rapidly less, at least her knowledge of its existence became slowly greater.
And all the time the conviction grew upon her, that she had been in that region before, and that in truth she could not be far from the spot where she laid her child down, and lost him.
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